This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! From retrospectives of basketball games and their interesting features, to republished articles and looking at NBA history through the lens of the virtual hardwood, Wednesdays at the NLSC are for going back in time. This week, I’m comparing NBA Live 2003 and NBA Live 2004, in a new edition of “Versus”!
Once again, I’ve gone a while between posting a new “Versus” feature for Wayback Wednesday. There is a reason for that, though. With so many retro basketball games and retro basketball gaming topics to cover, it can take a while to circle back to titles I’ve already talked about. I’d also prefer not to profile games for the first time with a direct comparison to another game, as that would get in the way of a comprehensive retrospective. However, it is fun and interesting to rank and rate old favourites, having had plenty of time to enjoy and reflect on them.
That brings us to NBA Live 2003 and NBA Live 2004, back-to-back releases in the Golden Age of NBA Live; or possibly the series’ second Golden Age, depending on how you rate NBA Live 2001 and NBA Live 2002. Among older basketball gamers, there’s a ton of nostalgia for both games. If you’re my age, you’ll remember them as fun games from early adulthood. If you’re slightly younger, they may have been your entry into basketball gaming! The question is: which game is better? I’ve broken up my arguments into five categories, so let’s take a look back…way back…
Both NBA Live 2003 and NBA Live 2004 have a strong case here, but NBA Live 2003 has a huge advantage being the title that introduced Freestyle Control. There’s no question that utilising the dual analog controls for dribbling revolutionised the genre. NBA Live 2004 obviously has those controls too, and took more of a sim approach with them to boot, but NBA Live 2003 was the innovator. On the PC, we also had CustomArt. Technically speaking, it wasn’t the first game that provided a folder for modded files, but it expanded upon the concept, facilitating bigger projects. Even if you don’t like NBA Live 2003’s gameplay, there’s no denying its innovation.
With that being said, NBA Live 2004 has an ace up its sleeve here: 10-Man Freestyle. This comprised brand new motion capture techniques for better animations, as well as improved physics and artificial intelligence. Players no longer interacted like two tin cans bumping into each other. Players jostled for position in the paint, forced dribbles to be picked up and turnovers to be committed with double teams, and generally were able to play with more physicality than ever before. In terms of player interactions, it’s the first game in the NBA Live series that plays like a modern title. Before that, two-man animations were primitive, and mostly limited to boxing out and backing down.
Franchise mode was also overhauled into Dynasty, adding depth such as trading of Draft picks, team interest as a factor in trade logic, a customisable training camp, team upgrades, and of course, the very popular cutscenes. There were more retro jerseys to unlock, the ability to switch control to a player off-ball, and even the expansion Bobcats to play with a year early. As far as controls are concerned, there may not be another innovation on the level of Freestyle Control. 10-Man Freestyle changed how the gameplay felt however, and NBA Live 2004 just comes across as the bigger, better game. Those extra additions and enhancements give it the edge here.
Winner: NBA Live 2004
Normally, I’m hesitant to include graphics as a category in a “Versus” feature. Visual style and atmosphere is one thing, especially when talking about arcade games, but it can be an unfair comparison for sim titles if they’re from different generations. It’s also obviously the most superficial aspect, and doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality of a game. However, it is relevant if we’re talking about two games from the same series, released on the same platform in back-to-back years, as is the case with NBA Live 2003 and NBA Live 2004. You’d expect the newer game’s graphics to at least be as good as its predecessor, if not noticeably superior whenever the technology allows.
To that end, the point clearly goes to NBA Live 2003 in this category. It’s not that NBA Live 2004’s graphics are bad, especially for their time. Players have proper faces that resemble the real person, jerseys and courts are detailed, and so on. I’d say that in most respects, NBA Live 2004’s visuals are acceptable at worst. However, they were still a step backwards from NBA Live 2003. Side-by-side, NBA Live 2003’s faces and head models are much better, and NBA Live 2004’s player models also had a problem with oversized feet. The new technology in NBA Live 2004 resulted in vastly better gameplay than in NBA Live 2003, but did cause a one-year dip in graphical quality.
All things considered, I’d take NBA Live 2004’s improved gameplay over NBA Live 2003’s superior graphics. After all, it’s much easier to enjoy great gameplay with so-so graphics than it is to enjoy mediocre gameplay with stunning visuals; stunning being a term relative to a game’s era, of course. Nevertheless, an obvious decline in graphical quality remains a valid criticism, especially when hardware improvements meant that striving for more realistic-looking players was a high priority. NBA Live 2004 broke the series’ streak of games that improved upon their predecessors’ graphics, so when comparing the two titles, it’s only fair to give NBA Live 2003 a point in that regard.
Winner: NBA Live 2003
A major factor in how well games are received in our community is the ability to mod them. This is admittedly somewhat myopic, as it seems as though some people would rather tinker with a bad but highly customisable game, rather than play a great game that’s difficult to mod. And yes, mods can make a subpar game more fun – even fixing some problems in the best case scenario – but as much as I appreciate modding and have created my own mods over the years, I’ll take the superior game. If you’re talking about two games released on PC that people enjoyed when they were new, the ability to mod those titles absolutely can and should factor into a comparison like this one.
Here’s the tricky part: NBA Live 2003 and NBA Live 2004 are both very moddable, and received a plethora of mods in their time, from small updates to major projects. As I mentioned, NBA Live 2003 introduced the deep, flexible, and easy-to-use CustomArt, but NBA Live 2004 had that as well. They used the same file formats for art assets, both utilised DBF files for saved games and rosters, and we were able to get creative with total conversions. On that note, as they’re from the same era, internet speeds were a hurdle when downloading big mods for both. There wasn’t really much that we couldn’t and didn’t do for one of them that we could and did for the other.
Look, I realise what a lazy copout it is to declare ties in comparisons like this. The problem is that modding – or patching, as we used to call it – has always been a big part of what we do here, and the heyday of NBA Live modding encompasses both NBA Live 2003 and NBA Live 2004. As such, it really has to be a category when considering the pros and cons of PC basketball games. Unfortunately, since NBA Live 2003 and NBA Live 2004 were so evenly matched as far as moddability and productivity, it’s not much help beyond giving each game another point. They do both deserve a point in that category though, so this contest remains tied halfway through.
Atmosphere & Vibe
Of course, a basketball game’s vibe and atmosphere goes beyond good graphics. If there’s one aspect of NBA Live 2003 that sticks out in your memory, it’s probably the moments we ended up calling “Courtside Comedy Cutscenes“, Named after an NBA home video from the 90s, these cutscenes likewise captured the lighter side of the league: stealing the coach’s seat, being scolded for signing an autograph, messing with the camera man, hiding the ball from the referee, and so on. They’re certainly unique, and also lead to unintentionally humorous situations, like Kwame Brown chewing out Michael Jordan for not paying attention during a timeout. Many gamers liked them.
Many others did not, however. For sim gamers who would’ve preferred the game to be a bit more serious and realistic, these cutscenes were too silly. They might’ve been fine as a rare Easter egg or special cutscenes in All-Star games, or perhaps if there’d been a “silliness” slider or option giving us control over the atmosphere. It’s safe to say EA Sports received largely negative feedback about them, as NBA Live 2004 did away with the Courtside Comedy in favour of cutscenes depicting moments we’d see far more often during an NBA broadcast. As someone who can appreciate the silly cutscenes but would prefer sim games to be more serious, it was the right move.
Before I decide this point however, we do need to talk about soundtracks. NBA Live 2003 had an iconic playlist which was released as an album, becoming the first video game soundtrack to go platinum. If you wanted to call it the best soundtrack we’ve had in a basketball game, you’ve got a case. NBA Live 2004 had a decent soundtrack of its own, which of course included the EA Sports mix of “Right Thurr“. When it’s all said and done though – and as much as I dislike the word – even with a superior soundtrack, Courtside Comedy Cutscenes added a cartoonish element to NBA Live 2003 that NBA Live 2004 wisely steered clear of. It was a better vibe for a sim game.
Winner: NBA Live 2004
As I’ve said, both NBA Live 2003 and NBA Live 2004 are remembered fondly. Even if you have a particular preference for one over the other, we can all agree that each had its strong points, and understand favouring either game. If you had to rank the games in the NBA Live series, you’d probably place both of them near the top. It’s not just a matter of nostalgia or weak entries in the series giving them a high ranking by default, either. They’re both games that were enjoyed in their day, were modded enthusiastically, and are fun to revisit now. Everyone has their preference, but when it comes to the consensus, which garnered the most satisfaction, and warmest reception?
In my observation: NBA Live 2004. It’s not that NBA Live 2003 was despised, but in our community at least, a majority of people wanted a more realistic style of play out a sim game. The speed of the gameplay, the overpowering nature of that first iteration of Freestyle Control, the huge blocks that swatted the ball to the opposite baseline with a big booming sound, and the aforementioned Courtside Comedy Cutscenes, were all too arcade-like for many people’s tastes. Tweaked rosters were in vogue, as we tried our best to adjust the gameplay without any sliders. When we submitted our NBA Live 2004 Wishlist, the basic gist was that we wanted a more realistic game.
NBA Live 2004 delivered on that front. The default sliders are geared towards a more casual approach to the sim style, but the underlying mechanics were more realistic. More to the point, we actually had gameplay sliders at last, and were able to tweak the gameplay independently of player ratings. I’m sure there are gamers that preferred the NBA Live 2003 style and missed it when NBA Live 2004 adopted more realism, but around these parts, that decision was seen as a major improvement. If nothing else, NBA Live 2004 is far less divisive. There’s an element of “love it or hate it” when it comes to NBA Live 2003, whereas NBA Live 2004 is regarded as a great sim title.
Winner: NBA Live 2004
Overall Winner: NBA Live 2004
When it comes down to it, NBA Live 2004 has better mechanics, better gameplay, more realism, a deeper franchise mode, and refined ideas that were introduced in NBA Live 2003. It is, in almost every aspect that matters, the better sim basketball game. At the same time, in terms of innovating and providing a gameplay experience that can be enjoyed, there isn’t necessarily a wide gulf between these back-to-back releases. NBA Live 2003 is graphically superior, and if you’re after a less serious take on the sim style, it’s arguably more accessible. NBA Live 2004 was what I wanted the series to be, but I do like NBA Live 2003, and understand why one might prefer it.
However, by and large, NBA Live 2004 ended up being the preferred game. Most of us wanted NBA Live to be NBA Live, and NBA Jam to be NBA Jam, with neither series attempting to be a hybrid. Leaning towards an arcade style didn’t benefit NBA Live, and trying to be sim really didn’t work out for NBA Jam! The direction that NBA Live 2004 took was the right choice as far as competing with NBA 2K, which was now multi-platform and gaining popularity. NBA Live 2003 is an important game in the series with a landmark innovation. It can be fun, and people are understandably nostalgic for it. Head-to-head though, NBA Live 2004 stands as the superior release.
That’s my take anyway, based on the criteria I’ve presented here. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary. You may well have preferred the style of NBA Live 2003, or perhaps you played on console, rendering modding a moot point. Whatever the case may be, the ball is in your court now. Who’s your winner in the battle between NBA Live 2003 and NBA Live 2004? What gives it the edge, or the overwhelming victory? While the consensus in our community has long been that NBA Live 2004 was better, I’m always interested to hear from people who ultimately preferred NBA Live 2003. Either way, we’re talking about two great games, and a special time in hoops gaming.